As the operatic opening notes of Fratelli D’Italia chime out in Natal, keep your eyes peeled for the moment the television camera pans past Andrea Pirlo. Take a moment to pay attention, just in case.
As he sings, Pirlo usually looks deeply controlled, relaxed in his own space — a description that could just as easily be used for his work on the pitch. He is not as explicitly emotional as his longtime companion with the Azzurri, Gianluigi Buffon, who belts out the national anthem with his eyes screwed shut as if nothing else ever mattered. But don’t underestimate how much Pirlo cares.
He appears to treat the electric blue jersey as a second skin. But after 111 caps, at the age of 35, Pirlo knows this experience he loves so much has to stop soon. If Italy are unable to prevail against Uruguay and extend their stay in Brazil, there might be no more than another 90 minutes for him on the World Cup stage.
"The matches in the World Cup are equally important, and the decisive match even more so," said Pirlo earlier in the week. "So this match is comparable to a semi-final or a final and we are either in or we are out. So we feel the same tension and enthusiasm as we would in those situations."
He has always said he would be there if he was called upon (in fact he loathes missing out on even a minute of football whether it is the hottest competition or the gentlest friendly). But it’s not realistic to expect a 39-year-old Pirlo to be strutting his stuff in Russia in four years time. The European Championship in France in 2016 is possible, but even that has to be assessed with some uncertainty.
When the day finally comes it is not going to be easy to bid farewell to one of the most graceful footballers of his World Cup generation. Possibly the greatest reflection of his standing in the game is the fact it won’t just be Italians who will feel compelled to send him off with a heartfelt ovation. He has finessed international football over the past decade with his elegant and imaginative style of play.
He is a proven winner, too. Which is why he will not be preparing himself for anything more profound than doing what is necessary to see off Uruguay and make the knockout stage of this World Cup.
"I hope to win and hope to continue," admitted Pirlo. "I’ve not started thinking about the rest and I won’t think about this right now, because now my goal is to win and keep going in this tournament. I want to continue to wear the jersey, which is the most beautiful thing that can happen to a player."
Italy have the advantage in that a draw would be enough for them to reach the next stage. But they also know they have to up their game from the lackluster showing last time out against Costa Rica to do so. “Boiled and eaten up” was the verdict from Gazzetta dello Sport, who were not impressed by a hot and bothered Italy.
Buffon was emphatic in his suggestion that they will improve considerably: "Enough excuses, to go out now would be a failure,” he said. “We can’t have lost our confidence just like that." The coach Cesare Prandelli is expected to revert to a 3-5-2 formation, to add more attacking thrust by partnering Mario Balotelli with Serie A’s top scorer Ciro Immobile.
Perhaps it needs to be more offensive in order to offset what the combination of the livewire Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani offer for Uruguay. As Costa Rica demonstrated in upsetting these two former World Cup winning countries, any sluggishness at the back is there to be exposed.
Pirlo, naturally, will be detailed with the job of creating chances for Italy. In this World Cup so far Pirlo gave an exhibition of his finest mastery against England. His thoughtful movement, to make room for himself so he has the time and space to create, was as outstanding as ever.
The way Costa Rica restricted him in the second game, though, made life more difficult both for him individually and by extension for the whole team. Smother the conductor, and the music loses its cohesive rhythm.
Oscar Tabarez, Uruguay’s wily coach, will be keen to cut off Pirlo’s supply lines. But the legend of calcio will use all his gifts to keep Italy, and his own World Cup adventures, beating on.